Separation Anxiety in Dogs: Strategies to help your dog cope with time alone

“I think my dog has separation anxiety. What do I do?”

We hear this question all the time. In fact, dog anxiety is one of, if not the, most asked-about topic among pet parents… and although as veterinary professionals we find it encouraging to know how many dogs have found such loving, doting homes, when it comes to separation anxiety in dogs there are some myths that need busting.

That’s what we’re here to do.

In this post we’ll get clear on what dog separation anxiety is, what causes it, how it differs from other types of anxiety, and what you can do to create a calm, peaceful environment for your anxious pet.

What is dog separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a medical condition characterized by a dog’s inability to cope without their person(s). Because dogs are pack animals, it makes sense that they prefer to stick together, but a dog with separation anxiety will find it next to impossible to relax when left alone.

Why? Because when they’re in this state, they’re contending with three key emotional conditions:

  1. Fear, which manifests in the body and the mind;
  2. Anxiety, which stems from anticipation of the effects of fear; and
  3. Phobia, or an excessive fear of a stimulus or trigger.

What causes separation anxiety in dogs?

There is often the misconception that separation anxiety is a learned behaviour, that a change in routine (heading back into the office after a few weeks of summer holidays, for example) will permanently traumatize your pet.

While it’s true that your pet may take some time adjusting to not having you around all day, this does not satisfy the definition of separation anxiety. Ultimately, it boils down to genetics. An anxious mother will pass her genes to her puppies, increasing the likelihood that they will be predisposed to anxiety when in an environment that revs their anxious engine—especially in the first 4 to 14 weeks of life.

Bottom line: heritability is huge. As pet parents, this is something entirely outside of our control. The same is true (to an extent) when it comes to socialization, since many of us don’t welcome a puppy into our home until the end of—or long after—that critical period of socialization.

Signs of separation anxiety

Separation anxiety can’t be diagnosed on a pet parent’s hunch; it has to be backed up with hard evidence. As heartbreaking as it can be for you, the best way to do this is to audio or video record your pet when they’re on their own. If your dog suffers with separation anxiety, certain observable behaviours will pop up within 10 – 20 minutes of your departure.

For more signs of fear and anxiety, check out Dr. Sophia Lin’s work on body language of fear in dogs.

Although there are some pretty textbook body language indicators of fear in dogs (like cowering), the better you know your dog, the more likely you are to pick up on more subtle clues like excessive drooling, pacing, moving in slow motion, or noise sensitivity.

Your veterinarian or a qualified trainer can help you identify your dog’s anxiety threshold, working with you to structure their environment in a way that prevents them from crossing over that threshold and into an anxiety or phobia response

Separation anxiety vs. generalized anxiety

You may be surprised to learn that all anxieties are not created equal.

What do we mean by that? Often there are myths and misconceptions about dog anxiety that lead to at-home misdiagnoses. Your best bet is always to speak with your vet; they’ll know whether your dog is dealing with separation anxiety or whether it’s one or more of the following:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (exaggerated anxiety about everyday life events with no obvious reason)
  • Noise phobia (fear of thunderstorms or fireworks, for example)
  • Normal puppy/adolescent destructive behaviours
  • Territorial aggression
  • Compulsive disorder (excessive licking of a body part or flank sucking tail chasing, for example)
  • Cognitive dysfunction (often the product of age-related changes in the brain)

Each of these differs from separation anxiety in subtle yet distinct ways.

Other anxiety-related misconceptions may include:

  • Presuming your dog is “acting out” due to vengeance or spite. Dogs’ brains don’t have the capacity to behave this way; they lack the ability for advance planning and the emotional centers are much smaller than in a human brain. Ultimately, separation is a matter of stress, distress, and responding to pet parent cues—not anger, disappointment, or another human emotion.
  • Feeling guilty over leaving because your dog loves you too much to be left alone. There’s no question your dog loves you (especially when they’re treated to a Waggle Mail dog subscription box every three months!), love is not pathological.
  • Loneliness can be cured with a companion. If you’re ready to welcome another dog into your family, great! The more the merrier, we say, but don’t expect your new addition to make all your (and their) worries disappear. Separation anxiety stems from a hyper-attachment to a person or persons, not a desire for companionship of any description.

How to deal with separation anxiety in dogs

Once you have a confirmed separation anxiety diagnosis and understand the intensity of your dog’s anxiety response, it’s time to design a treatment plan. These treatment plans often double as prevention plans. A win-win!

Of course, your treatment plan will be specific to you, but the key is to understand your dog’s body language in order to create predictability. A predictable environment helps your dog learn to more effectively cope without you over time.

Strategies for managing separation anxiety may include:

  • Taking it slow. Because we’re dealing with a genetic predisposition, the adjustment process is necessarily gradual. Depending on age and intensity, your treatment plan may start with small increments like building comfort with you approaching the door, reaching the door, and getting to the other side of the door.
  • Designating a safe space (with as much space as possible). When you leave, a dog with separation anxiety will desperately want to reach you. If they’ve been restricted to a crate, fear may lead to desperation which could put them at risk of harm. A better set-up includes a gated area with a comfortable bed, appropriate toys (puzzle toys are a fantastic distraction), and a crate that is open and available to them if they so choose.
  • Creating consistent interactions. All members of your household and any other supports (doggy daycare workers, for example) should try to interact and react to your dog in the same way. Comings and goings should be uneventful—no shaking keys, no squeals of delight when arriving home—so they build confidence that someone who leaves will always eventually come back.
  • Teaching your dog to settle through relaxation training. Every dog is different, but you may find success in putting your dog at ease with relaxing music for dogs.
  • Supplementing with medications. Your vet may prescribe certain anti-anxiety medications (not sedatives or over-the-counter purchases like Gravol) to help your dog adapt to separation.
  • Natural remedies. Additional help may also come from things like calm diets, Adaptil pheromones, zylkene, or anxitane.

If you found this post on dog separation anxiety helpful, send it to someone you know and subscribe to Waggle (e)Mail. We love sharing fun, easy, and effective ways to promote a healthy body, healthy mind, and healthy pet-parent bond with our pack members.

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